The Noir Odyssey
Writer: Aubrey Wisberg
Based on a story by Wisberg & Martin Field
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Cinematographer: Harold E. Wellman
Music: Albert Glasser
Cast: Paul Langton, Barbara Payton, Robert Shayne, Selena Royle
Release: February 27, 1955
Studio: Allied Artists Pictures (Monogram)
Percent Noir: 70%
“Murder is My Beat” feels like the dying breath of the classic era of film noir. Everything in the movie feels like an afterthought, and even though it only clocks in at an hour fifteen, it feels endless.
1955 was the last year of the “classic noir” era, with 1956’s half noir/half sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” metaphorically representing the pivot point where paranoid science fiction would replace paranoid crime dramas. Director Edgar G. Ulmer had already directed his first sci-fi film, the unfortunate “The Man From Planet X,” and after years of providing the smallest budget films with the atmosphere of A-pictures, here he can’t even be bothered to stage a shadow properly. The Poverty Row studios that conjured up some of the best and worst films noir were dying out, with Monogram changing its name to Allied Artists Pictures and producing a weird mix of big-budget A-pictures like “Friendly Persuasion” & “Love in the Afternoon” and their usual low-budget quickies. Former blonde bombshell Barbara Payton, in her last film role, apparently performs the entire thing having just woken up from a nap, without an ounce of the power of her previous work. The times, they were a’changin’, and “Murder is My Beat” served as proof that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.
A cop named Patrick (Paul Langton) has gone off the reservation and is found in a cheap-o motel by his friend/co-worker Rawley (Robert Shayne). Patrick starts explaining what happened, and we flash back to a murder he was investigating where a man named Fred Dean was hit with a blunt instrument then dropped into a fire in such a way that his face and hands are entirely charred. Any reader of at least one “Nancy Drew” mystery already knows Dean isn’t really Dean, but it takes the other characters about 30 minutes of screen time to catch on. Also, I’m not sure why Patrick needs to re-tell Rawley this part of the story, since Rawley was actively helping him at the time, but whatever.
The prime suspect is a woman named Eden Lane, and the best sequence in the film is Patrick tracking her up north when a blizzard happens. Instead of waiting and possibly losing the lead, Patrick abandons his car and treks up a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm to get to her cabin. Let me repeat that: the dude walks up a mountain. In a snowstorm. Awesomeness. When he finally gets to her cabin, Ulmer unleashes his one indelible visual – the cabin is almost entirely buried in the snow except its chimney.
Patrick shows himself inside and comes face to face with Eden, played by Payton. Her appearance has been drummed up quite a bit by almost everyone in the movie commenting on her beauty. The script, by producer Aubrey Wisberg, goes out of its way to make Eden seem irresistible, with an old woman describing her thusly: “(She) wore tight clothes. Indecent the way it showed her shape.” Then Patrick says she’s got “a face that would stand out in heaven.” Perhaps Wisberg did this at the last minute, after realizing that Payton just wasn’t delivering the electricity that was needed.
Eden says she clunked Dean on the head, but didn’t think she killed him. She allows herself to be taken back, where she is convicted for murder. Patrick puts her on a train to take her to prison upstate and, in the middle of the ride, Eden gasps – she’s certain she saw Dean at the train depot for a fraction of a second… and he’s alive! It’s here that the movie, which was passable previously, goes completely off the rails (this was not a train pun).
Does Patrick do something logical like stop the train and rush back to the depot with Eden to investigate? Or take Eden to prison, get a sketch of Dean and then return to the town to investigate? Hell no. Patrick grabs Eden and they jump off the moving train. Patrick says he’ll investigate for a week to try and find Dean, and if he finds nothing, he’ll take Eden to prison. So he’s committing career suicide because a convicted murderer said she thought she saw the man she admits to hitting over the head alive. Yep. Part of the reason this is so hard to swallow is because Payton really doesn’t sell the scene where she claims to see Dean (Ulmer and his editor wisely intercut the scene with the squeal of the train wheels to up the tension of the moment), but even if it were the best actress in the world the moment would still feel farfetched.
The second and third act are a very convoluted series of investigation scenes. Patrick does most of the footwork at first, with Eden (who has a miraculous number of new outfits materialize out of nowhere) staying in the hotel room. Ostensibly this is because Eden is a wanted felon, but the cops are looking out for Patrick too, so why not have the woman who can identify Dean along for the investigation? Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter because suddenly Eden disappears, abandoning Patrick to turn herself into the authorities (?!?) for literally no reason whatsoever. It’s here that Rawley re-enters the film and takes over as the sidekick, helping Patrick put the final pieces together.
This is weird, and not just from a storytelling stand-point. Payton, the lynchpin to the entire premise, disappears from the film right up until the final epilogue scene, where she barely talks. It makes me wonder if it was a production problem. Look, Payton obviously had many, many personal demons and this movie was made when she was on her way down. Perhaps the producer had to write her out of the film because the actress was having issues? Because otherwise I can’t fathom a reason for the story to take this odd left turn. Let me be clear, Payton doesn’t look drunk or on drugs in any of her scenes, but it’s not a good performance – she’s sleepwalking at best. And even though it makes no sense, at least Rawley is a good enough foil for Patrick, giving the scenes some life.
It all comes to an all-too-obvious climax aboard a moving train where one of the killers hurls herself off the moving train in front of another. And, despite the movie being produced twelve years after Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the “effects” look way worse, with lighting reflecting off the rear-projection screen and a bit of the actress’ clothes bouncing back into frame after she drops. Whoops.
This was cinematographer Harold E. Wellman’s first production, and it seems amateur in every way. Not a single scene besides the aforementioned blizzard summons up even a bit of atmosphere or interest, and Ulmer’s lackluster framing doesn’t help matters. Ulmer was obviously capable of greatness, but I get no sense of that here, and I probably won’t remember a frame of it tomorrow. What a pity.